Building with Bricks and Bytes – The Overlapping Worlds of LEGO and Software Engineering

As a software engineer and LEGO enthusiast, I spend my days designing with code and my nights designing with bricks. Whether I’m dreaming up a new brick-inspired creation or a new app, the process is surprisingly similar. You’ve got to have a game plan, take it one step at a time, and make use of parts that can be reused. These simple strategies, which make my LEGO hobby so satisfying, are also what help me create better, more efficient software.

Project Planning: Envisioning the Masterpiece

When building with LEGO, if you’re working with a boxed set, your vision is provided for you in the form of instructions and a picture of the final product. If you’re creating something on your own, it helps to imagine what you want the final product to look like before you start building. In either scenario, if you just start piecing bricks together with no clear plan, it can lead to frustration and a final product that doesn’t quite fit together as you’d hope.

For instance, when I embarked on my ambitious project to recreate a Rex float using LEGO, it wasn’t an overnight feat. In fact, this labor of love, now proudly on display at the Louisiana State Museum, was a year-long endeavor that consisted of 4,190 meticulously chosen pieces. The first nine months were spent immersed in a creative hibernation – studying the original float, visualizing its LEGO equivalent, and designing it using a 3-D modeling program. This not only enabled me to precisely know the pieces and parts I’d require but also gave me the opportunity to study how others had mastered similar textures.

The actual assembly, which took less than three months, was a comparatively breezy affair thanks to the exhaustive planning stage. The time invested upfront saved me dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars during the build, emphasizing the importance of having a well-charted plan. Today, as I reflect on this project, the most elaborate and enjoyable one I’ve undertaken to date, it’s not just the completed model that brings satisfaction, but also the intricate process that led to its creation.

The same concept applies to software development. Before writing a single line of code, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what the software is supposed to do (its purpose), whom it’s for (its target audience), and how it will fulfill its purpose (its functionality). This is often represented in a series of documents like project briefs, requirements documents, wireframes, and mock-ups.

Just like in LEGO building, trying to develop a piece of software without a clear plan can lead to a product that is difficult to use, unstable, doesn’t meet the needs of its users, or is full of bugs. That’s why the planning phase of software development (sometimes referred to as the design or discovery phase) is so important.

Incremental Steps: One Block at a Time

In LEGO building, the instructions break down the process of building a complex structure into simple, incremental steps. Rather than trying to assemble everything at once, you add one brick at a time, and each step brings you closer to your final goal. This process allows you to see your progress, make corrections along the way if necessary, and gain a sense of accomplishment as the structure begins to take shape.

Similarly, software development often employs incremental methodologies. One of the most well-known, which we use here at Revelry, is Agile development. It involves breaking down a large project into smaller, manageable pieces known as “sprints“. These are worked on one at a time, each one bringing the software closer to its final form. Like LEGO building, this process allows developers to see progress, make corrections, and refine the software over time.

Every line of code written, every software patch applied, and every update released represents a step towards the end goal. And just as each LEGO brick contributes to the overall structure, each of these steps in software development is a vital part of the final product.

Additionally, just as it’s possible to celebrate the completion of a section of a LEGO build, software teams often celebrate the completion of sprints or major milestones. This not only helps to keep morale high, but also ensures that progress is being made towards the overall goal.

Modular Design: The Beauty of Reusability

In both LEGO building and software engineering, the magic lies in the modular nature of their basic components. In LEGO, the concept is that with a limited set of standard bricks and pieces, you can build almost anything you can imagine.

While creating a LEGO representation of a Pride Parade, I used the same bricks that had previously been parts of flowers, the iconic Tipitina’s building, cars, alligators, and more to replicate confetti, flags, and other elements of a parade float. This beautiful transformation of the same pieces into various creative forms captures the essence of LEGO’s limitless possibilities.

Similarly, a core principle in software design is to write reusable, modular code. The idea here is to create components or modules that perform specific functions and can be used in different parts of a program, or even in different programs.

Writing modular code is highly beneficial for several reasons. One primary advantage is the improved maintainability. With modular code, changes, additions, or bug fixes need to be performed in one place – the module itself. This greatly simplifies the maintenance process, as the same logic doesn’t have to be updated in multiple places throughout the codebase.

Another advantage of modular design is enhanced collaboration. When a project is divided into distinct modules, different developers or teams can work on separate components without stepping on each other’s toes. Each module can be developed, tested, and debugged independently, making the whole process more efficient and less error-prone.

Lastly, modular code promotes code reuse, leading to less redundant code and faster development. Once a module is written and tested, it can be used in multiple contexts within the same application, or even across different applications, saving both time and effort.

Just as you can use LEGO bricks to build a variety of structures, reusable code can be used to build a variety of functions and applications. The modular nature of both bricks and bytes is what makes them both such a joy to work with.

Conclusion: Keep Building

Whether you’re working on a LEGO model or designing a piece of software, strive to envision your masterpiece, work in manageable steps, and make use of the power of reusability. In both cases, patience, creativity, and an understanding of your building blocks will lead you towards a well-crafted final product. With these strategies in mind, you can effectively navigate the intricate process of software development, or simply enjoy the satisfaction of seeing your LEGO creation come to life, one brick at a time.